“Blurbs” (E48)

  • Originally printed:  The Forum, December 1923
  • First reprinted in:  Never Reprinted
  • Original Byline:  Robert C. Benchley



We discern intimations of Benchley’s Guy Fawkes persona in this piece, which applies the Wayward Press treatment to the unctuously undiscerning literary criticism in vogue during the Fall of Calvin Coolidge’s accession to the Presidency. Benchley begins in a mood of mock amazement, basking in the froth of fiction’s self-styled apotheosis. One recent barrage of ballyhoo heralded the arrival of no less than 38 all-time exemplars upon the literary landscape – just in time for Christmas! A veritable embarrassment of rich exaggeration.

And yet, the author has no pointed quarrel with any of the esteemed works on that year’s publishing schedule. He cites a number of critics for contempt of their own métier, but negs nary a modern masterwork. Doubling back to poke fun at the stuffiness he had exhibited during the opening paragraphs of the piece, Benchley admits there is nothing inherently ludicrous in imagining that some of these “instant classics” of the early 1920s might indeed emerge triumphant from the chrysalis of damnation by attainted praise. In the final analysis, it is the paucity of perspicacity that Benchley abhors in these peripatetic paeans – a defect he would continue to dog in his mass media interventions of the late 1920s and 1930s.

Favourite Moment:

The Boston “Transcript” uses the word “unique” a bit more cagily, in speaking with characteristic New England repression of another book. “A more unique self-revelation,” it says, “has perhaps never been given to the world.” There may have been an equally unique self-revelation. The “Transcript” reviewer does not let himself go to the extent of denying this. But the point to be emphasized is that, since man first began drawing picture-stories on the walls of his cave, there is every reason to believe that the world has never seen a “more unique” personal record than this.

“Barnum and the Birth Rate” (E36)

  • Originally printed: The Forum, July 1923
  • First reprinted in: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley


Asserting that no one, not even English readers who derive all of their ideas from Dickens’ American Notes, has less insight into the mind and character of the “Average American” than the Average American, Benchley challenges popular delusions concerning Phineas T. Barnum’s status as a cultural exemplar. Deploring the tendency to place Barnum’s genius for manipulation on some imagined continuum with the legendary “shrewdness” of the foxy grandpas on Main Street, RCB argues that Americans are in fact the most easily stampeded herd of front-page fundamentalists ever assembled. For Benchley, Barnum is the American antitype, in that his achievements rested entirely on his perception of his fellow citizens’ passion for being led around by the headline. Observing fewer critical faculties in the ink swilling millions than in any illiterate mass of medieval peasants, the piece lays bare a despairing streak in Benchley that would find a full-throated outlet in “The Wayward Press” four year later.

The author does find a way to knit Barnum back into the American quilt before the end of the article, but only on the basis of the financial gullibility he demonstrated in losing his first fortune in the collapse of the Jerome Clock Company during the 1850s. But even here, Benchley discerns a difference between Barnum and the American “everyman”, whose eagerness to take up nearly any claptrapsical crusade he encounters in the papers is exceeded only by his terror of taking any single fellow being at their word. Barnum, for all of his misanthropic pronouncements against the masses, believed in his friends. Luckily for the momentarily embarrassed impresario, the reservoir of suckers remained to buoy up his bankbook throughout the succeeding decades.

Favourite Moment:
“To point to Barnum, however, as a ‘typical American’ is like pointing to a cat as a typical mouse. The ‘Typical American’ was Barnum’s meat.”